During J-term 2019, 367 students and 32 program leaders participated in one of Luther's 18 courses around the globe. Each course had a different journey and a different blogger (or several). Below you'll find a post from Lenny Myrah, a Vietnam veteran and Luther alum from the class of 1963 who joined students enrolled in the course, and his reflection on the Stability and Change in Vietnam.
A student's brief introduction: Shortly before we left for Vietnam, the class was told we would be joined by Lenny Myrah. We were encouraged, should we so desire it, to ask him questions—about his involvement in the War; about what Vietnam was like back then; about visiting again in 2019. So we did. And Lenny listened patiently and answered willingly. He soon became a reference-point for us students, someone we could bounce ideas off, or simply sit down with and have a chat. In our visits to museums, businesses and organizations he asked thoughtful questions. In our class discussions he made important observations. And throughout the entire trip he made sure to have his cellphone camera at the ready, eager to document this journey as it happened. As a class we felt very honored to have Lenny with us; so much so that we all agreed it would only be fitting that he have the final say in this blog series. Without further ado…
I was visiting with Professor Steve Holland last May and he was telling of his upcoming J-term class to Vietnam in January 2019. I casually asked if he would take an old man along. He was receptive to the idea and sometime later over some morning coffee with him and Professor Moeller and John Lund I was given a green light.
My first association with Vietnam was in the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968 when I served in the Navy with the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin. Twenty-five years after the end of the air war I came back on my own at the end of January 1998 to spend a week in Hanoi and a few days in Hue. Hanoi at that time was just shy of two million people. Now their population exceeds eight million and growing. In 1998 I was one of a handful of westerners visiting Hanoi. Now there are tourists from every continent flocking to Vietnam. New hotels are being built at a rapid rate and tourists and tour buses are ubiquitous throughout Vietnam.
I had never been to the southern part of Vietnam and being accepted to be part of this ‘J’ term class gave me that opportunity.
You have read the excellent blogs by the students as they reveal their insights and observation during our travels over the length of this country. My first impression of Vietnam was on our arrival to the Tan Son Nhat airport that serves Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975. It’s a very modern airport, like all the airports in Vietnam. When I arrived in Hanoi in 1998, the terminal was a Quonset building with wooden benches. What they have done rebuilding their infrastructure the past 20 years is truly remarkable. HCMC with its thirteen million people and eight million motorbikes has whole new development areas of high-rise office complexes and apartment buildings, little cities within a city. I would compare HCMC to our Los Angeles and Hanoi to New York. Da Nang is also experiencing phenomenal growth with a population over one million. During the U.S. Vietnam war, the Da Nang airport was the busiest in the world. Now they hope to become the new Singapore of S.E. Asia. Ha Long Bay has just dedicated a new airport that can handle the big jets direct from far away places eliminating the three-hour bus ride from Hanoi.
As we approached the mid week of our tour I realized, other than the few war museums we visited, there was little or no evidence of ever a war here. There is no talk of war. Seventy percent of the population was born after the end of hostilities with the U.S. Vietnam has moved on. As one of the speakers told me, the people are generally happy and very optimistic about their future. After being under the thumb of China for over a thousand years, the French for one hundred and the Americans for fifteen, if there is talk of war it’s usually about China. China still complicates Vietnam’s future with their expansion in the South China Seas.
After a few days into our trip and as I began to know the students, they became the highlight of the tour for me. They were truly ambassadors of goodwill. They showed genuine interest, compassion and sensitivity to all aspects of what the people and their nation face as they move forward: rapid growth, air pollution (80-90 % of the people on motor bikes wear masks) need for mass transit, trash, the crush of tourists with their intrusion into the fragile landscape and the changing demographics affecting their traditional way of life, especially in the rural areas. They engaged the locals every chance they could from a pickup game of soccer with the bellboys of our HCMC hotel to a stroll through Hoi An with kids from a school that teaches English. Some, as they walked down the street past a restaurant, received an impromptu invitation to a birthday party where they were given food and drink. When it came time to leave they tried to pay but were refused. They were guests. Whenever they came upon a group playing Hacky Sack, three or four would usually join and goodwill was soon evident. Professors Steve and John did a great job of directing students toward certain areas of interest followed by group sessions where lively discussion would take place. Many of the students didn’t know each other at the start of the tour but they soon developed into a cohesive unit and enjoyed great camaraderie.
I thank the Luther Global Studies Department for allowing me to take this tour. I especially thank these young students for their friendship and all the courtesies shown me during our journey together.
Lenny Myrah, Class of 1963